Due to the serious nature of viral haemorrhagic septicaemia, controls have to be placed on entire river catchments following confirmation of the disease. Sampling of fish in the River Ouse catchment has been undertaken, as have preparations to disinfect the single affected fish farm. We are working closely with fish farms in the area to ease restrictions as quickly as possible.
I thank the Minister for his helpful and sympathetic letter yesterday in response to the representations I have made on behalf of a number of my constituents. He acknowledges the adverse impact on businesses, especially those engaged in rearing fish for restocking farms and fisheries. There is a major welfare problem so we need an urgent decision from him about whether, following further testing, those fish can be moved. What time scale does he envisage for that? Secondly, he suggests that he has asked his officials to look at the assistance that may be available to alleviate the economic impact of the disease. Has he been in touch with the European Commission about the matter, as some of our MEPs are making representations, too? They could support and agree with the aid that he has in mind.
I sympathise greatly with the hon. Gentleman’s constituents; fish farms in his area and in the constituencies of a number of other colleagues are suffering real hardship. My officials are working flat-out to try to resolve the issue as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we are under legal rules—both UK and European—about how we deal with such diseases. It is very important that our priority remains to contain and eradicate the disease so that it does not spread and make the problem worse elsewhere. We are looking at ways of reducing the size of the area under restriction and that is under active consideration. I cannot give him an exact time scale, but I can assure him that we are doing everything that we possibly can. If he and other Members would like to bring a delegation from their constituencies to meet me, I would be happy to discuss the issue with them.
I associate myself with all the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). Does the Minister accept that VHS could destroy a number of commercial fisheries, such as Danebridge Fisheries Ltd in my constituency, which has been in business for 28 successful years? Will he give an assurance that if there is compulsory slaughter of fish, due to the disease, the Government will pay compensation; otherwise, such companies will disappear, to the disadvantage of the consumer?
I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. The policy under successive Governments has been not to compensate for fish diseases. If anything, the way in which we pay for the cost of animal diseases is moving more and more in the direction of cost-sharing between industry and the taxpayer. However, I will look into other ways in which we can help to support the industry; for example, it would be sensible for the industry to set up its own hardship fund, from which a business could seek help if it got into serious trouble. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to join the delegation of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and meet me to talk about the matter in greater length.
What economic assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the disease? It is all very well—and probably very helpful—to call for a hardship fund, but what will the cost be, looking at the big picture? We want to know, because the track record of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not that great when it comes to handling these diseases. We have heard all the right words, but we have not seen the right actions in the past. We would also like to know how the disease got here in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman should appreciate, if he does not already, that the UK has an extremely good record on fish health—probably among the best of any member of the European Union. We want to keep these diseases out. I am afraid that I cannot give him an answer to his last point about where the disease came from. We simply do not know at the moment, but there is an intensive epidemiological investigation under way. If we get a better idea, we will keep the House informed. The cost depends on how many businesses are ultimately affected. My understanding is that the businesses that are worst affected at the moment—as raised by the hon. Member for Ryedale and one or two others—are those that move fish out to other fish farms for breeding or catching. The majority of the fish farms in the area that are producing trout and other fish for consumption should not be affected, because once those fish have been killed and gutted, there is nothing to restrict them from being exported to shops and sold in the normal way.